Yom Kippur: Intoxication, Collective Responsibility, and Harm Reduction

James Kowalsky Guest Pieces, Harm Reduction, Jewish Perspectives

Breaking fast with Roti and Samosas. Photo via Sam Litvin.

Rabbi Jacob Schram (Ben Stiller in Keeping the Faith) called Yom Kippur the Super Bowl of the Jewish calendar. It’s probably the most coveted ticket of the year for temple-goers, so it makes sense to say that. To me, Yom Kippur is more like a combination of Lent and New Year’s. If you don’t know, Yom Kippur, which occurred just over a week agond, is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the last chance to make yourself right with God before the books are closed for the year. Yom Kippur also falls eight days after Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day on the Hebrew calendar. In addition to repenting for what we’ve done wrong in the past year, Jewish people use Yom Kippur as a time to recommit ourselves to do good deeds in the coming year. Essentially, we’re atoning and making resolutions all at the same time. In thinking about this High Holiday, I realized some of the ways that it’s linked to my thoughts on drugs and drug policy.

A well-known part of Yom Kippur is fasting. The full 25-hour fast includes no eating, drinking, or bathing, as well as prohibiting carrying money and wearing leather. To many, this self-denial might seem a punishment, a way of making a sacrifice and imposing some discipline to demonstrate remorse for our sins. But beyond that, fasting allows us to alter our state of consciousness. We ignore our normal drives so that we can focus on spiritual concerns—the way we live our life and how we treat other people. By fasting, we change our normal chemical balance, affecting our mood and thought process. In this way, we experience a form of intoxication produced by the absence of substances.

Rabbi Aaron Potek and I once spoke about the reason that people use drugs. He generalized that people typically use drugs to feel more present or to disconnect from their feelings, thoughts, or an experience. Dr. Andrew Weil, in his book From Chocolate to Morphine, also talks about some of the reasons why people use drugs: “expanding awareness and exploring the self” and “reinforcing religious practices.” The fast on Yom Kippur serves both functions and promotes a heightened connection to a person’s thoughts.

The point of the prayer is [that] … ills are present in our community and we share a collective responsibility for them.
A friend who is Muslim described fasting for Ramadan by saying, “About 10 days into Ramadan, when all your immediate needs aren’t satisfied, you really get to know who you are and see your true character.” Fasting, and drug use, can help people experience altered states of consciousness and understand themselves in deeper ways. Like drug use, fasting too often can be harmful. Fasting is one option in the spiritual toolkit for thinking and feeling unique sensations that can unlock meaningful knowledge.

A central prayer during the Yom Kippur holiday is Viddui, Hebrew for confession, which includes the Ashamnu. Together, everyone recites a list of transgressions from A to Z, tapping their fist against their chest for each one. The list includes confessions like, “We have acted wickedly,” “We have oppressed,” and “We have done violence.” The point of the prayer is not that every single person has committed all of these transgressions. Instead, it reinforces that these ills are present in our community and we share a collective responsibility for them.

For too long, we’ve treated substance use and its harms as individual problems with individual solutions. But, the harm caused by drugs doesn’t occur in isolation. Its impacts ripple across communities and its resolution lies in meaningful connection. In considering how to live a better life in the year ahead, we can all look at what we do to create communities that make it more likely that people will struggle with drug use, or how to create communities where people who do struggle with drug use are not ashamed to come forward and ask for help.

Yom Kippur is not about promising to be perfect. Each year Yom Kippur comes again and it’s not like there’s anyone sitting it out because they, or their community, achieved absolute perfection in the past year. The holiday is about taking an honest moral self-inventory, making amends with people we’ve wronged, and committing ourselves to try to do better in the coming year. Yom Kippur promotes the pursuit of perfection but recognizes the value in incremental change.

Incremental change is a fundamental element of harm reduction. While many people see complete abstinence as the only solution to a person’s drug problems, harm reduction expands the menu of options to also include any positive change. Those changes might include safer substance use, attending to responsibilities before using, or substituting one drug for a less harmful one. At Yom Kippur, it would be naïve for me to say that I will not do anything wrong in the coming year—to completely abstain from any misdeeds. Instead, I focus my energy on self-improvement and being the type of person that my community calls me to be. I will make this effort because it may help me get a little closer to that ideal. As the founder of HAMS Kenneth Anderson puts it, “Better is better.”

May we all be sealed for a good year ahead.

About the Author
James Kowalsky is an AM Candidate at University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. He is an advocate for harm reduction and social justice. He volunteers with the Chicago Recovery Alliance by educating people about drug overdose and training them on how to administer naloxone. You can follow him on Twitter @James_Kowalsky.
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